5E Pros and cons of a sandbox game, and what to do about them?

Lanliss

Explorer
I plan to shamelessly take advantage of this community's wisdom and knowledge, so I have some basic questions with complicated answers. I will be running a game for new players, and after some time teaching them the rules I plan to kick it off in my own world as a sandbox game.

What are the pros and cons of a sandbox game?

How can I maximize the pros?

How can I minimize the cons?
 

Flexor the Mighty!

18/100 Strength!
Also usually in a sandbox the group can run across foes that far outclass them and some have a POV that they will only encounter level appropriate foes and that running is not fun.
 

Nagol

Unimportant
I'm a huge proponent of sandbox games for D&D.

Let's start with Cons

CONS
  • typically a larger upfront investment from the DM
  • the DM cannot become married to any single plot/scene since there is an excellent chance it won't happen.
  • a fair amount of the situations/scenarios will go unremarked
  • analysis paralysis on the part of players becomes a risk

PROS
  • potentially higher engagement from players
  • the campaign develops in decidedly unexpected ways based on player choice
  • generally lower inter-session investment from the DM
 

Istbor

Explorer
I endorse Nagol's list. I also agree with Flexor's point.

Specifically, a lack of focus, especially if your players are not accustomed to a sandbox style game.

What I like to do, and perhaps this will get some rotten tomatoes thrown at me... is to railroad them.

I am not talking about the whole time, but simply a short introduction in the beginning. Likely a hook for one of your larger story archs, made to set the stage, and to even suggest additional hooks to other plot lines and areas of your world.

And example from my current campaign is that the players start out at a festival. There, an important figure(s) are targeted and attacked. Depending on if the players save these people, the story and the initial hooks may change. The players learn of a plot to kill this person, and also about another shadowy group with their own agenda. These are two different (but slightly woven together) plots/adventures.

The idea is that this intro get the players on one or more of the larger hooks you have prepped for or have going on in general for your world. Have more. Case in point, I have three or four other large hooks/adventures the players may have heard of but are not currently explorer or pursuing.

Which kind of goes into my best suggestion for someone going into this. Make a lot of different adventures and plots. As Nagol said, don't expect many of these to be the focus. Heck, don't expect any of them to be the focus. I have made up towns/ruins/legends in passing when NPCs are asked questions, completely in passing, and my players have focused on that. Something for which I had nothing planned, but now we need to visit and flesh out.

It can be fun, but it requires some thinking on your feet.

It may seem like a lot of beforehand work, but if your players are into the world you made and are having fun, all that extra detail and work can really impress.

Edit: Just want to add... and maybe it is a little bit mushy, but believe in yourself. It can seem pretty daunting staring at a blank world. Rely on creativity, not just from yourself, but from your players as well, as they help build this thing you are creating. I have seen of some of your posts and ideas Lanliss, I think you can totally pull this off well!
 

Irda Ranger

Villager
Sandbox games are great, but make sure the players understand what is required of them.

I find it's very helpful if campaigns have clear goals and objectives. Even if the goal is "acquire as much loot as possible", make sure everyone knows that (don't assume, especially with new players!) so they can evaluate quest opportunities. Have the players sit down with you and work out what kind of campaign they want, or at least are willing to play in. This will effect the kinds of locations you build. For instance if you make a bunch of dungeons and the players decide they want hard boiled detective fiction, you just wasted a lot of time.

It's easy for players to mis-judge how difficult some locations are, even experienced ones. Telegraph, telegraph, telegraph. If there's an Adult dragon laired up in a particular mountain, make sure some villagers tell the PCs about it. "The thing's as big as a house! I saw it eat an ogre in one gulp!"

Make sure there's a reason everyone is adventuring together. Have the players help you write the "launch" fiction. It doesn't really matter to much what it is, as long as everyone buys into it. You just need a launchpad to explain why everyone is together. In my next campaign I think I'm going to have everyone Shanghaied into a "clearing expedition" where the local authorities assign people to teams and banish them from the city "on pain of death" until they come back with a certain number of orc heads. They're tattooed with a magical tattoo that causes excruciating pain if they separate but allows them to transfer 1-6 HP from themselves to anyone else with the same tattoo within 30' once per LR.
 

FrogReaver

Adventurer
I plan to shamelessly take advantage of this community's wisdom and knowledge, so I have some basic questions with complicated answers. I will be running a game for new players, and after some time teaching them the rules I plan to kick it off in my own world as a sandbox game.

What are the pros and cons of a sandbox game?

How can I maximize the pros?

How can I minimize the cons?
I tend to dislike sandboxy type games. So I can speak more to the cons from my perspective.

1. It's much harder to make informed decisions.
2. Overload of choices and most not particularly interesting and the ones interesting to a specific character/player are rarely interesting to everyone.
3. There are rarely any decent simulation type mechanics in the game for what kinds of consequences my actions will have which feeds back into the informed decisions and overload of choices problem.

So my advice would be. Start the sandbox off with a bang. Don't start it out as an open world where the players can do anything but don't have any real objectives yet. (lack of informed decisions and overload of choices in most sandbox starts).

Give the players some initial boundaries and expectations. Then let the story evolve and them cross the boundaries later. For example you may give them a subset of NPC's they really trust and should be willing to help/save. You may introduce a few known bad apple NPC's that they players know. Let everything else evolve from there. Maybe some of the bad apples aren't really bad apples and maybe 1 of the people they trust isn't soo good. Then the players get to plan and react and will have a bit more informed decisions and still plenty of choices but not necessarily an overload that seems to far and distant for their characters to be personally concerned with.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I generally try to sandbox-like games. Probably not "pure" sandbox, but close.

What do I mean? Well, I generally don't assume my players will do "X", and I don't really care if they choose to defeat "Y".

From a general campaign structure standpoint I normally just set up my region (which tends to expand as the campaign progresses). Who's who? What are the main 2-4 factions? What are the high level conflicts and opportunities that will provide opportunities for my PCs?

I then come up with a quick-list of NPCs, generally a dozen or less. I don't need to name every butcher, baker or candle stick maker in the town. Just well known individuals that they will need to discuss or run into. In also keep a list of NPCs handy in case they do want to talk to the butcher, the baker or the candle stick maker.

The trick for me is to have a general outline while providing only the bare minimum of details that I need. As the game progresses I take notes.
For example the baker's name was Gary and he's really an assassin. Why? Because someone made a joke about how his baked goods were "to die for" and "wouldn't it be funny if he really did kill people that way"? Pay attention to what your players are chatting about, frequently they make some great suggestions.


At the end of most game sessions I then have a discussion about what they would like to do next. I'll dangle a few plot-hooks, or ask if there's something else they want to pursue so that I can prep for the next game.

If direction changes in the middle of the game (which happens) I may reskin enemies. They decided to go after the orc raiders last time, but then decide at the start of the next session to spy on Gary? Well it turns out that they discover Gary is an assassin, and his gang is mostly made up of half-orcs who use the same stats as the orcs I had planned for.

The orcish fortress? Morphed into the thieve's base of operations. Or I just wing it.

The pros to this approach
  • I minimize "extra" work outside of the game. Most (not all) things get used, if not necessarily in the manner I expected.
  • People have a greater sense of agency, like their actions matter.
  • The players (often inadvertantly) help me create the world.


Cons
  • I have to make things up on the fly on a pretty regular basis. Fortunately, practice makes perfect. Or at least better.
  • Sometime ideas I think are really awesome never get used. I thought the goblins with purple hands would really catch their imagination, but it was not to be.
  • I've been accused of railroading. OK, the player who said it was a little odd, but he thought I railroaded them because they never caught me off guard, because I rarely had to stop the flow of the game.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
I've never run a sandbox but I recently read some ideas that would seem appropriate, the key one being have the players suggest the quests of their players. Initially that would come from their backstories.

For example the character I played in a campaign had fallen afoul of the cities criminal underworld and she was framed for a crime she didn't commit. So her quest might be to return to the city, get revenge and clear her name.

If the other players have similar meaty objectives then they could be woven together during the adventures and a campaign could develop, but because the player characters are leading the quests their input could taken at various points to answer questions and develop twists.

Not sure it's useful but it sounds cool :)
 

yakuba

Villager
Some of these are already covered by other posters:

1) Decide on a overarching campaign focus, e.g, inter-dimensional invasion, overthrow the evil empire, get rich or die trying. Get buy in on this idea from the players before beginning to build your campaign.

2) Start the campaign with a definitive act which should open up several paths for further explanation. Don't just have everyone meet in a tavern, or, if you do, set it on fire.

3) Until it becomes clear your players are willing to run the show, always try to lay out 2-4 plausible paths that the players can choose to follow. Pay attention to the choices they make so you can get an idea of what they want to do.

4) Use player backgrounds, histories and known contacts to create scenarios in the campaign.

5) Show your hand. Make sure that you give reasonable hints as to what lies ahead. If there's bandits in the woods, then people in town and on the road should be talking about them. If the BBEG is a 11th level fighter maybe he's known to have killed a giant single handedly. You're moving away from a world where it's your job to make sure everything is killable, so make sure that you're telegraphing danger levels in a much more transparent manner.

6) Keep winding the clock. Have 2-4 important plots that connect to the overall campaign, and make sure that they have a timeline which progresses irregardless of the PC interactions with those plots. Let these events be significant enough that they make the nightly news in your world and the PCs can find out about them.
 
I plan to shamelessly take advantage of this community's wisdom and knowledge
Being shameless will help you DM more than any wisdom and knowledge we can impart. ;)
so I have some basic questions with complicated answers. I will be running a game for new players, and after some time teaching them the rules
So sometime next year, then? ;P
I plan to kick it off in my own world as a sandbox game.
Why is it you want to run a sandbox in the first place? Curious to try it out? Your players seem to want it? You've heard bad things about 'railroads?'
 

Lanliss

Explorer
Being shameless will help you DM more than any wisdom and knowledge we can impart. ;)
So sometime next year, then? ;P Why is it you want to run a sandbox in the first place? Curious to try it out? Your players seem to want it? You've heard bad things about 'railroads?'
Not sure when I am actually starting to teach them, as some of them are having technical difficulties right now. Next year is a real possibility, though I hope it is more like late september/early october.

They are fresh, so a sandbox might not be the best idea, but I have wanted to try it out. I have been working on a world for something like a year or two now, and would enjoy being able to run some players in it. I am hoping that getting them fresh will lead to them not being set on a closed mind set. If I can start them early on the idea of thinking for themselves, I might be able to avoid some of the major complaints I have seen in regards to sandboxes.

That said, this is simply preemptive thought. I am not set on forcing them into a sandbox if they aren't interested.
 

FrogReaver

Adventurer
Not sure when I am actually starting to teach them, as some of them are having technical difficulties right now. Next year is a real possibility, though I hope it is more like late september/early october.

They are fresh, so a sandbox might not be the best idea, but I have wanted to try it out. I have been working on a world for something like a year or two now, and would enjoy being able to run some players in it. I am hoping that getting them fresh will lead to them not being set on a closed mind set. If I can start them early on the idea of thinking for themselves, I might be able to avoid some of the major complaints I have seen in regards to sandboxes.

That said, this is simply preemptive thought. I am not set on forcing them into a sandbox if they aren't interested.
Maybe, but it may make it worse as they won't have any experience to know what kinds of things are really dangerous and what aren't unless you plan to spend a very lot of in game time trying to explain those differences.
 

Ath-kethin

Explorer
I find "sandbox" to be a term to which many have positive associations but a campaign style for which many have a strong dislike. One of the first questions I was asked when I kicked off my last campaign was how "sandboxy" it would be. I asked the player what he meant by that and he didn't even have an answer.

I've played in (and run) campaigns where the PCs basically stood around trying to amuse themselves because there was no obvious story or plot. I've played (and run) campaigns where once they realized that the group was in control of it's adventures and destiny, each of the players became intensely and personally devoted - to courses of action often diametrically opposed to one another.

My personal experience suggests little value for "sandbox" style campaign, is the takeaway here.

As a result, my compromise is to provide a living world as a background for the characters. I weave subplots and stories that wax and wane in importance but are always present, with recurring NPCs, to give the players a sense of a world that is large and involved.

And I run published adventures, which are often glorified (or not so glorified) dungeon crawls.

I read ahead and I have a general idea of what I'm going to run in what sequence, and that allows me to introduce important NPCs and organizations and cities well ahead of time, so when they become relevant it seems like a natural occurrence in a living world.

My players love it. I find it rewarding. I can tie into their backgrounds and interests and help develop their characters and push forward with their goals without ever having anybody feel like they have no control OR feel like they have no direction. Change a tribe in the adventure to match one the player invented or mentioned in their backgrounds. Change a magic item to have a history closely tied to a character's past. Change an adventure's location to match tales you've told and rumors you've set.

That's how I've been running games for over 20 years. It's a nice balance of basically everything my players and I enjoy about fantasy, stories, and RPGs. It's a learning curve for sure: 20 years ago my reach definitely exceeded my grasp. But you can make it work, and it's amazing when it does.
 
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BookBarbarian

Expert Long Rester
I haven't run a sandbox game yet, though I've been thinking about it a lot. I tend to run on a "Don't build the world any more than is necessary for the game" approach. I'm not going to tell my players about all the political forces of the game world, unless the adventure actually makes those things relevant, and if I'm not going to tell my players about it, then i'm better off not wasting my limited time thinking about it either.

If i were really going to embrace the sandbox, I think I would have to embrace my player character stories. Major plot lines would be present to provide them with decisions to make, then react according to those decisions. To keep it from being too strictly player focused, i think I would set up one overarching Villian or group of villains that are actively trying to achieve their nefarious goals.

I think with those two things I could have a game that is plot focused without being railroady, and yet feel like a living world too.

So off the top off my head lets say we have a barbarian in the party. The Villain might be subverting the Barbarian's local village council to manipulate them into attacking a nearby town to destabilize the area and allow his agents to seize control. Now we have a big plot hook for the party, that is also a little plot hook for the barbarian character. Even if a the players choose not to swallow the hook the villain will just move on to their next objective, which could affect another player's story.

So I guess that's my strategy to handle the Cons. Lots of little plot hooks that take little prep time and can easily be discarded, and an in game intelligence driving and moving the big plot hooks around.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Sorry, [MENTION=6698582]yakuba[/MENTION] , I'm picking on your list as a jumping off point for my own... :)
1) Decide on a overarching campaign focus, e.g, inter-dimensional invasion, overthrow the evil empire, get rich or die trying.
Yes.
Get buy in on this idea from the players before beginning to build your campaign.
No. These are new players, right? Let the overarching focus develop on its own, with or without some nudging from you if needed.

2) Start the campaign with a definitive act which should open up several paths for further explanation. Don't just have everyone meet in a tavern, or, if you do, set it on fire.
Maybe you'll get lucky and one of the players will bring in a character who intentionally goes out recruiting other poor fools to go adventuring... :)

3) Until it becomes clear your players are willing to run the show, always try to lay out 2-4 plausible paths that the players can choose to follow. Pay attention to the choices they make so you can get an idea of what they want to do.
Even better if you can find a way to somehow interweave these paths such that what's done in one affects the other(s).

4) Use player backgrounds, histories and known contacts to create scenarios in the campaign.
Get a feel for your players first. I've seen players who, given half a chance, would bog the game down in their family affairs. Start simple, and worry about deep histories etc. once you see who's going to survive.

5) Show your hand. Make sure that you give reasonable hints as to what lies ahead. If there's bandits in the woods, then people in town and on the road should be talking about them. If the BBEG is a 11th level fighter maybe he's known to have killed a giant single handedly. You're moving away from a world where it's your job to make sure everything is killable, so make sure that you're telegraphing danger levels in a much more transparent manner.
But by the same token, they're new players: let them make mistakes! If they ignore the signs and blunder into the lich's lair, let 'em have it! That said, provide reasonable escape routes for if-when they do choose to run away.

6) Keep winding the clock. Have 2-4 important plots that connect to the overall campaign, and make sure that they have a timeline which progresses irregardless of the PC interactions with those plots. Let these events be significant enough that they make the nightly news in your world and the PCs can find out about them.
Agreed.

And to add, from the DM side:

Start small. Don't info-dump the whole game world onto these new players all at once; give them a town, a dungeon, maybe a kingdom and-or culture the town is in, and let them explore outward from there at their own pace.

Encourage them to be proactive in choosing what they want to do, and not to always rely on you to give direction.

Be ready to hit curveballs, 'cause once they find their feet you'll get a ton of 'em thrown at you.

And, as they're new players, keep the character/rule options and complications to a minimum.

Lan-"screw it, we're going that way"-efan
 
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Istbor

Explorer
Not sure when I am actually starting to teach them, as some of them are having technical difficulties right now. Next year is a real possibility, though I hope it is more like late september/early october.

They are fresh, so a sandbox might not be the best idea, but I have wanted to try it out. I have been working on a world for something like a year or two now, and would enjoy being able to run some players in it. I am hoping that getting them fresh will lead to them not being set on a closed mind set. If I can start them early on the idea of thinking for themselves, I might be able to avoid some of the major complaints I have seen in regards to sandboxes.

That said, this is simply preemptive thought. I am not set on forcing them into a sandbox if they aren't interested.
I am running my own world sandbox style for a fresh faced group. Only one has ever played D&D before. So far, so good. Sure, we are only a week or so in as far as game time, but the players are having fun, and I am having fun. No one yet has died, though they have run up against forces they were not prepared for, and were able to use good sense and tactics to get out.

I pretty much agree with other sentiment here. Broadcast the danger appropriately, and provide plausible ways of escape (or even chances to bargain) from situations that are over their heads currently.
 

kbrakke

Villager
I have recently begun running games in what I would consider to be a truer sandbox than I have ever run before, and have been loving it. Here is what I do to keep it successful.

1) Make sure there are enough things the players know about and want to do something about.

When we started I simply gave each character two rumors, Keep on the Borderlands style about places, peoples, events, treasure, legends etc. Some were true, some where not. Even now, 8 months later, they are realizing some of their initial rumors were true and some were not.

If you do this, you should prevent one of the major issues you can have in a sandbox which is too many choices, not enough information. When you tell someone they can do whatever they want, unless they are a veteran, or someone who is already comfortable authoring their own story, they will simply be stuck. Why would you want to do X over Y? What could happen if we do X and not Y. By giving rumors they have heard something about X already, and have a goal.

If you do this well:
The players will be actively engaged with the world and want to learn more, and take actions in character to understand more. It is one of the most fulfilling feelings having the players be actively engaged.
If you do this poorly:
The players will be confused and not connect with things. They will be stuck not understanding why they want to do anything.

2) You don't need to tell the players what's going on in the world, but you need to know.

I did a lot of prep work for this campaign (Ok, I mostly did some work near where they started and slowly expanded it out as they explored more). Mostly I made a 10x10 hex map, 12 mile hexes (1 day of travel on roads gets them through 2 hexes at best). For each hex I had some location they could find (Alright, I only have 70 of them done, but they haven't gone near the other 30 hexes yet, I'll deal with that when they get there[Also, full disclosure about 50% of hexes are me taking something from another module and sticking it in there, their two main villages are Red Larch and Phandalin renamed.]), and made an encounter table for each hex type (I did finally finish this one last week, now I'm done, as long as my future adventures only use Forest, Desert, Savanah, Mountain and Swamp, I'm golden). I also made all the power groups in the region, decided what they want and gave them clocks (A concept I barely understand, but have bastardized to use in my game). In this way, as the players adventure and follow up on things they want, the various groups in the region advance their plans. When the player interact with someone from these groups I know what they want.

In this way I do little prep between games, but am still able to maintain the living world around them. The players can then choose what parts of it to interact with, and if they decide to go deep on one thing, I know what they should find.

If you do this well:
The world will feel like something living and breathing. Both you and the players will feel like the world could exist, that actions have consequences, and there is more to find. Travel should feel like an adventure, and the world should feel large.
If you do this poorly:
It will feel disjointed and like there are many deus-ex machinas. Events will seem random, and suspension of disbelief will be gone.

3) Tell your players up front that they can find things that will 100% kill them without thought.

I told them this up front, they have to this point fled from 7 or 8 encounters. They have even fled from encounters that I knew were easier than they could handle because they didn't have any information on these foes.

So for me, the biggest con is: You as the DM need to do a lot of prep beforehand. You should know the world, the people, and the places beforehand. Then you need to figure out how to start the players exploring all this you made. If you don't do it correctly it can feel chaotic, directionless, and like a slog. If you do it well both you and the players should be excited and surprised each and every session.

To give an example from my game yesterday. First, we hadn't met in a month, which is the longest break to date. So I had the players write some short fiction to explore their characters and their motivations. Everyone was on board. People were giving me new plot hooks, describing how they felt about events in the campaign history, making poems filling out backstory, it was a blast. Then, secondly, they set out to deal with one of the many problems they have. First 4 hour segment when they get out of town, random roll, orc bat rider attack.
Now why on earth would orcs be attacking the party so close to their home in broad daylight? The players wanted to know. Well, I already had the answer. Without going in to extensive detail, the party has made waves in many places (Those clocks I mentioned earlier have been ticking) and one of those groups, who happens to be able to order Red Fang of Shagras orcs around wants to press-gang the party to work for them.
So now, after a random encounter roll they have learned more about the world (They managed to capture one orc and get a few details from him). They are now worried about a new threat, and have another hook to follow up on. Completely of their own volition they bought land and are trying to start a business, so now they feel their business is threatened, and I don't actually need to do any more work for this plot line. If they choose to go investigate immediately, the situation will not have changed much, but if they wait, the clocks will tick and I will know what sorts of things could happen to them.

I have lots of words and thoughts about this, and might make a resource for others. But I can say without doubt, if you are willing to put in the initial work, the results are so amazingly worth it.
 

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